A recent public opinion poll in Northern Ireland established that only 17 percent of the voting-age public is in favor of a united Ireland (UI), compared to 65 percent in favor of continuing the union with Great Britain--the United Kingdom. That total goes up to 79 percent of committed voters and a majority of Catholics in favor of NI remaining part of Northern Ireland.
So why have working-class unionists been protesting and rioting for the last ten weeks across the province? Ostensibly they are protesting the decision taken on December 3, 2012 to limit the flying of the Union Flag (commonly known here as the Union Jack) to 17 or 18 designated days (public holidays) instead of everyday. It makes little difference to the protesters that this is in fact the policy in Britain and until recently was the declared policy of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). This involved the two nationalist parties, the SDLP and Sinn Fein, voting for British official guidelines as a compromise. So what is really going on here?
First, the protests began with a mass leafleting of East Belfast by the Democratic Unionists (DUP) calling on voters to protest to the Alliance Party that opposed the compromise. In 2010 Peter Robinson, the leader of the DUP, lost his Westminster parliamentary seat, which he had held since 1979, to Naomi Long of Alliance. This was payback! Robinson wanted to win the seat back for his party if not for himself.
Second, the protests were supported by East Belfast leaders of the Ulster Volunteer Force. The Northern Ireland police, PSNI, was putting heat on the East Belfast UVF by investigating them for various criminal offenses. This was their way of demonstrating that they can make trouble for the police if the police make it for them.
Third, most working-class unionists, known commonly as loyalists despite their behavior, are supporters of the DUP. The DUP over the decades has profited politically from insecurity among unionists, who they keep insecure by playing up the theme that the "union is in danger" (what in Afrikaans would be known as the gruen gevaar or green peril). Former DUP leader the Rev. Ian Paisley was very big on playing up the "perfidious Albion" theme. This is the fear that the British government is about to abandon the loyalists to Dublin. That there is more than a smidgen of truth in this helps to make the claim all the more credible. The Anglo-Irish Agreement of November 1985 in which London gave Dublin an official consultative role in Northern Ireland policy was given as proof of this. The fact that loyalist conduct revolts the average Briton and makes this abandonment all the more likely is not considered.
Fourth, unionists define security in terms of domination over loyalists. This means parading through nationalist neighborhoods playing obnoxious songs and triumphalist music during the marching season from May through September and flying the Union Flag as much as possible are examples of this. When loyalists feel abandoned by their middle-class mainstream unionist leadership, this is their default behavior. The fact that nationalists have benefited from the Good Friday Agreement is taken as proof that the agreement is bad for loyalists. This is symptomatic of zero-sum thinking.
The protests have been bad for the province's image and for political stability. So the DUP has called for them to end. But expect them to break out again in a few months time as the underlying problems remain.